Wednesday, March 11, 2009

“Albany Beef"

Humans have a long tradition of substituting an inferior ingredient for an unaffordable, unavailable, or forbidden one – and then naming it in a quite misleading way. Welsh Rabbit is the best known example, but there are many others.

It seems unbelievable today that sturgeon would be the inferior substitute for beef, but that was indeed the situation in the Hudson River Valley in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The town of Albany was once known as ‘Sturgeontown’ on account of the large amounts of ‘Albany Beef’ caught in the Hudson river.

The Atlantic sturgeon is an impressive fish, that is for sure. It is capable of living up to the age of 50 years, and growing up to 14 feet in length. It was fished extensively for its oil, as well as its roe (‘caviar’) and vealy-pink flesh – and was fished so successfully that it was almost fished out by the 1990’s. The slow development to maturity mitigates against its slow return to significant numbers, so we can only protect and hope.

Not everyone was impressed with the substitution. The military journal of James Thatcher during the Revolutionary War has this entry:

July 2lst 1779 - The officers of our regiment invited a select number of officers of the Pennsylvania line to dine on sturgeon, a large fish which Major Meriweather caught in the North river. This fish is a favorite with the Dutch, at Albany, and is on that account by some called Albany beef; but in my view it is worse than horse beef, and it was merely an auxiliary at our table.

The deceit was so good, and the cost-saving so great, that it is said that restaurants often served sturgeon as veal. It was common in both Europe and America over many centuries for cookbooks to give recipes for sturgeon cooked as veal – and for veal disguised as sturgeon.

Veal Disguised As Sturgeon For Six Platters.
The evening before, or early in the morning, take six calves' heads without skinning, and scald them in hot water like a pig, and cook them in wine, and add a half-litre of vinegar and some salt, and let it boil until the meat comes off the bone; then let the heads cool and remove the bones. Then take a piece of good coarse cloth, and put it all in it, that is to say, one on top of the other in the smallest space you can, then sew with good strong thread, like a square pillow, then put put it between two strong planks and press very hard, and leave overnight in the cellar; then slice it up with the skin on the outside like venison, and add parsley and venison, and only put two slices on each dish. Item, if you cannot find enough heads, it can be done with a (skinned?) calf.
Le Menagier de Paris (late 14th C)

Quotation for the Day.

An angler is a man who spends rainy days sitting around on the muddy banks of rivers doing nothing because his wife won't let him do it at home.
Author Unknown


Editorial Staff said...

Great post - I think you are going a little far with "The town of Albany was once known as ‘Sturgeontown’," though. I don't think there was ever a town of Albany (the town was called Beverwyck, then a city charter was issued, I think. As long as I've been interested in Albany history, I've never heard it seriously called "Sturgeontown."

Anyway, I enjoy the blog.

The Old Foodie said...

Hello John
One of the references I came across definitely said it was called Sturgeontown. Now I'm damned if I can find that reference again. I will though! Just give me a little time!

Anonymous said...

Links to cited 19th century sources (NY Herald, etc) which refer to Albany as 'Sturgeontown' and other variations of that nickname, can be found in this article if anyone is interested: